Suing others does not Lead to Justice

While the huckster and the hurricane have kept us glued to our TV screens, a very important event has passed by with much too little attention:  the passage of a bill that permits Americans to sue Saudi Arabia for the death and destruction of the World Trade Center bombings.  It is called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).  What makes this bi-partisan bill so important?  Implicit in the Act is the belief that Americans can take legal action against governments but people from other countries will not or cannot reciprocate.  I’d like to explain how short-sighted, dangerous, and distorted this reasoning is.

First, let’s review the facts.  There was the 9/11 attack, planned and executed by Osama Bin Laden.  There is no proof that the Saudi Arabian government participated in this terrorist operation.  If they did, we might have taken the attack as an act of war; even the bellicose Bush administration didn’t do that.  Second, there is the internationally shared legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which says that “a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution.”  To date, the United States has agreed to this doctrine.  Yet the Senate voted 97 to 1 and the House voted 348 to 77 to override President Obama’s veto of the bill.

And let’s remember that the right to sue is not the same as holding people and nations to account by bringing them to world tribunals for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  This we can do.

Imagine what might happen if we really do abandon the doctrine of sovereign immunity.  How, for example, would we respond to Vietnamese families, who grieve their dead as much as we do, if they decided to sue the United States for the millions of people the United States killed and maimed in a useless war?  Would we accept the legitimacy of these legal claims?  What about Iraq, where we began a war on the false premises of weapons of mass destruction, murdering thousands, destroying homes and public buildings, and, in the process, precipitating civil war?  What about the relatives of those murdered—we call it “collateral damage”—during drone attacks.  What about the relish that people around the world would take in seeking reparations—or a big payday—by suing the wealthy American government.  The courts would be brought to a standstill by thousands of law suits and would be hard pressed to rule that the United States is different from other nations.

In short, the United States Congress has demonstrated both a clear double standard and an almost total absence of strategic foresight.

Beyond the strategic implications of JASTA, there is the symbolism: what it tells us about our society.

American society is destructively litigious.  When Americans feel wronged, they sue.  Why?  To lash out, to punish, to get even.  This is the biblical doctrine of “an eye for an eye.”  But is there really solace and satisfaction in vengeance?  Does that make up for our losses?  Does it relieve our grief?  Does it bring back our loved ones?  I don’t think so.  When there is injury and costs involved in caring for the injured, I am very much in favor of legal action.  But death is another thing.  Then we must mourn.  We must come to terms with our losses, however terrible and however difficult.  If possible, we mourn with others and, in that strange, awful twist of fate, grow closer through tragedy.  But vengeance tends to divide and embitter.  It leaves a sour taste in our mouths.  It solves nothing.  It makes a mockery of our belief in justice.

How about deterrence, the power of law suits to send a warning to those who would harm us?  I have seen virtually no proof in the sociological literature that punishment deters criminals, no less terrorists.  Let’s just dismiss this idea.  It is a rationalization for our desire for revenge.

Then there is the profit motive.  As the personal injury ads that pollute our TV screens tells us, there’s a potential gold mine out there.  If we’re miserable, maybe we can feel a little better if we’ve got money to spend.  There’s something to be proud of.

While our litigiousness tends to rot our society from within, our belief that America is different from other nations, that we are special and not subject to the same rules as others, does the same to our standing in the world.  We believe with our whole hearts that America is the greatest nation on earth.  And it’s true that our democratic ideals and the structure of our government are exceptional.  But there are two problems with exceptionalism.  First, we are in a period when the practice of democracy is strained.  Wealthy people, supported by decisions like Citizen’s United, wield more power and have more privilege than at almost any time in our history.  Voting rights are wantonly denied in many states. We are on the verge of becoming more a plutocracy than a democracy.  Poverty remains extremely high.  The presidential campaign—the symbolic centerpiece of democratic process—has people round the world horrified and repulsed.

We may still be one of the better places to live.  People still flock to our shores in search of the American dream.  But we are in a period of nativism, rejecting the very people who have made us strong.  And our foreign policy, in the name of great ideals, has never been so pure.  For centuries now, we have undermined regimes around the world when they do not agree with us or threaten our interests.  We believe ourselves to be superior to others, and that superiority gives us the right to tell others what to do—not in the candid language of realistic self-interest but in the language of ‘making the world safe for democracy.’  We do this with a straight face, even as we support some of the world’s worst regimes.  Here are a few: them Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, Marcos in the Philippines, Saddam Hussein, Franco in Spain, Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Batista in Cuba, and Pinochet in Peru.  Apparently, America’s exceptional qualities give us this right. This is the second problem with exceptionalism.

Let’s return to my original premise: We cannot construct an ethical and strategically sound justification to sustain our own “sovereign immunity” while denying it to other peoples and nations.   If we try, we will continue to undermine our own credibility, moral suasion, and international power.

A Man of False Promise

I read that Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Republican Congressmen.  No doubt he will promise or appear to promise many things to them, and suggest that they will be great partners if they trust him.  His rhetoric is filled with phrases like “believe me” and “trust me.”  But those who do trust Trump are bound for disappointment and sorrow.  And it is a sorrowful day that even these most obstinate, oppositional congressional “leaders” feel that have to give it a try.  If not, the demonic Democrats lurk on the horizon.

Trump’s promises are familiar to most of us.  They sound like the husband who says he’ll really try to get home on time, take more time with the kids, say what’s on his mind—from now on.  But he never does.  It sounds like the alcoholic and the drug addict who understand deeply, not only that his health is at risk, but that he has been letting down others; and they couldn’t, in good conscience, do that again.  But they do.  They do it again and again.  It sounds like the abuse victim—not the abuser—who says that she’s finally learned her lesson.  She knows that all of his sobbing regrets and meaningful promises aren’t worth the air he breaths.  No sir, she won’t go back to her man.  But she does.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the victim or the victimizer.  Neither can or wants to believe that the other doesn’t want to reform, that there isn’t a kinder, gentler, more generous side to the offending party.  Maybe it’s almost impossible to believe such a thing.  Maybe it goes against so much of what we believe.  Some degree of trust, however small, appears to be our default setting.  How could we go on in our lives if we became that cynical.

The willingness to believe Trump is not a trivial matter.  If people were more skeptical, he might not get away with his swaggering lies.  Unless, of course, he was always dealing with new people.  There is a powerful marriage that is formed between the liar, the cheater, and the cheated–if they continue together.  They need one another.  Trump’s jilted partners have continued to believe that they can make a good deal, that a relationship with him will pay off in the end.  Some need the broken deals so that they can be better than he is.  Some, like Marco Rubio and Chris Christi may have a masochistic streak. Who knows.

There is one way, however, that Donald Trump is different than all of these intertwined pairs—husbands and wives, parents and children, addicts and enablers, abusers and abused.  They usually do feel guilty and have regrets.  Trump does not.  I find it almost impossible to believe that he wakes up in the morning promising to himself or to anyone else that he will stop lying, that he needs people to trust him and understands that he has to earn their trust.  I don’t believe that Donald Trump believes that he has to earn anything.  He has been given things, like his inheritance.  He takes things, like money from vulnerable people in search of an education; or from almost anyone who thinks they can make an honest deal with him.

The picture of Trump tramping into Congress could be funny if it weren’t pathetic.  We know he’s going to make a deal or two.  We know he will go back on the deals the first moment that it is convenient, or the moment someone pierces his very thin skin and offends him.  We know how indignant the Congressmen will be.  We know that their indignation will threaten and enrage Donald Trump.  Then revenge becomes the only possible path for him.  I think that all of those Congressmen know this.  If not, they are even less conscious and observant than I thought.  And that’s not much.

Like the abused women and children, the Congressmen think they are dealing with at least a rational person.  They think that he understands that it is in his interest to deal fairly with them.  Their ego can accept nothing less.  He thinks it’s in his interest to appear to deal fairly with them.  They can’t quite bring themselves to believe that they can’t strike a deal of mutual interest.  He can’t govern without Congress, can he?  Never mind that Mussolini and Putin managed this very readily.  He couldn’t really have so little respect for promises, could he?  Of course he could.

This fundamental willingness to lie, this fundamental lack of concern for and about others—this, and we need to believe it—is the true Trump.  He is a narcissist, concerned almost exclusively about his own enhancement.  And he cannot even feel, really feel, anyone else’s pain enough to change.  What’s more, he is constantly afraid that people will get the upper hand on him.  When these fears emerge, he is convinced that he’s not making them up, that others really are plotting to hurt him, to take him down.  At such moments, Trump sees conspiracies everywhere.  The idea of African plots that install presidents in the White House is only the best of a frequent Trump narrative.

In a couple of essays to follow, I’m going to discuss what narcissism is.  The term has been bandied about a great deal in relation to Trump but I want people to understand it with a little more clarity and depth, particularly when expressed as a narcissistic personality disorder.  And I will also write about how integral lying and paranoia is to that kind of disorder.

For now, this is what we need to know: Trump is a narcissist, a liar, and a conspiracy monger.  He cannot and does not really want to be anything else.  He is not to be trusted.  His word is not his bond.  Anyone who acts on the opposite assumption will suffer the consequences.